This Is The Blue Jays Year

TORONTO (July 9) — What better time than the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Major League All–Star Game at SkyDome to make a proclamation about the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays? Here it is (mark it down and remember the date): This is the season the Blue Jays will end their 23–year World Series drought.

Yes, indeed. A quarter–century ago tonight, the best players in the game gathered at the two–year–old ‘Dome (now Rogers Centre) for the only MLB All–Star match to be held in our city. Less than one year and four months later (at Atlanta Fulton–County Stadium, in the wee–morning hours of Oct. 25, 1992), the Blue Jays became the first team outside the United States to win the World Series — a feat the club matched the following autumn when Joe Carter smacked his “touch ’em all” home run against Philadelphia. A 22–year playoff famine ended last October, when the Blue Jays roared back from a 2–0 deficit to eliminate Texas in the American League Division Series, and then took the eventual–champion Kansas City Royals to Game 6 of the ALCS. After a somnolent first three months of the current season — in which the Blue Jays appeared disjointed — the club has put it all together. Though a seven–game win streak ended today against Detroit, I’m convinced the Blue Jays are going to take it all in 2016. Again, remember where you heard it.

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THE OFFICIAL PROGRAM FROM 25 YEARS AGO TONIGHT AT SKYDOME.

How is it possible for me to say such a thing after writing a blog here on May 19 (http://bit.ly/22hyOM2) that claimed the Jays will not again “catch lightning in a bottle” — as they did last August and September? Easily — because this Blue Jays team is better. It doesn’t need the rocketry of last year’s post–trade deadline edition, which became artificially hot (41–18) upon the acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere. Almost never will a club win the World Series after playing sub–.500 baseball for the first four months of the schedule, as did Toronto in 2015. The August–September tear was an enthralling spectacle for an entire generation of fans in this city that had never experienced “pennant fever”. But, it wasn’t real.

What we are seeing today, by comparison, is thoroughly legitimate.

The Blue Jays of July 2016 remind me the most of Cito Gaston’s World Series teams.

I had the privilege of covering that wonderful baseball era for Canada’s first all–sports radio station — now Sportsnet–590. I saw, first–hand, as the Blue Jays slowly; deliberately and agonizingly developed into a back–to–back champion with such figures as Hall–of–Fame second–baseman Roberto Alomar (the best player in team history); Carter, the power–hitting right–fielder; Hall–of–Fame batsmen Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor; all–time pitchers Jack Morris and Dave Stewart, along with twin–closers Tom Henke and Duane Ward. The 1992 and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays were devoid of a glaring weakness. So, too, is the current club.

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It begins — as with all championship–caliber teams — on the mound. And, it’s hardly an embellishment to suggest that the 2016 Blue Jays may have the best starting rotation in franchise history. Through the predictable ebb–and–flow of the long season, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and R.A. Dickey have developed into a stellar faction. A combined won–loss record of 40–20 (at the All–Star break) includes Dickey’s 7–9 mark. The other four are 33–11. “Quality starts” (defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs) are now common.

As such, the Jays haven’t yet cultivated the need for a typical, four–layer bullpen (long relief; short relief; set–up; closer). If the starters remain so reliable (Estrada has to recover from a lower–back ailment; he is currently on the 15–day D.L.) — and if manager John Gibbons can establish a reasonable right and left–handed bridge to Roberto Osuna in the second half of the schedule — the Blue Jays will glide past pitching–poor Baltimore and win their second consecutive American League East Division title.

If the bullpen becomes more of a factor in the second half, the Jays will need an enforcement.

The club isn’t perfect. But, neither is any other team in the Majors.

Here in Toronto, there are no soft spots at the plate or in the field.

A likelihood right now is that Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion will wage a two–man “battle” for American League most valuable player. Donaldson won the award last season. Each man is in the top five in A.L. home runs and RBI. Encarnacion leads the Majors with 80 runs cashed. He is on pace to break the club single–season mark of 145 RBI, set by Carlos Delgado in 2003. Donaldson plated 123 a year ago. The Jays were on their seven–game tear in the absence of slugger Jose Bautista — sidelined for the past month (but apparently close to returning) with a “turf–toe” ailment. He has 12 home runs and 41 RBI in 65 games.

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For a second year running, Donaldson, at third base, and Tulowitzki, at shortstop, form a defensive–vacuum on the left side of the infield. There isn’t a ball that Kevin Pillar cannot track down in the outfield.

But, improvements over last season provide the Jays their best World Series chance since 1993.

We mentioned the thoroughness of the starting rotation.
Devon Travis has returned to play second base. His bat is an upgrade over Ryan Goins, who manned the position toward the end of last season and during the playoffs.
Also healthy after missing virtually all of the 2015 schedule is left–fielder Michael Saunders. Though a tad–less fleet defensively than Revere, he is hitting up a storm this season (.302, 16HR 42 RBI). His production has made up for what the Blue Jays lost when Melky Cabrera signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox (Dec. 16, 2014). Melky had 16 home runs and 73 RBI for the 2014 Blue Jays.
 Goins, Darwin Barney and Ezequiel Carrera are Major League reserves, which is much–preferable to relying on call–ups from Triple–A. The latter two are versatile defensively and enjoying good seasons at the plate. Barney, a career .250 hitter, is batting .302 in 62 games. He can play third–base, second–base and shortstop. And, his presence has enabled Gibbons to rest Donaldson in the field more frequently (day–game after a night–game), which could become a big factor late in the schedule (and the playoffs). Carerra, much–improved in either left or right–field, has upped his batting–average from .273 to .285.

If there’s a drop–off from a year ago, it’s at catcher.

After a dreadful start to the season, Russell Martin has picked it up with the bat and he remains above–average defensively. But, he is no longer backed up by 1–A. The Blue Jays were too cheap to re–sign Dioner Navarro, who took a paltry $4 million from the ChiSox. Navarro had 17 home runs and 89 RBI in 193 games with the Jays in 2014 and 2015. At the moment, Josh Thole is the lone option for Martin. He has two home runs and 18 RBI over parts of four Toronto seasons as Dickey’s personal battery–mate. If Martin gets hurt, the Jays are in trouble. This is an area that must be upgraded before the end–of–July trade deadline.

Also, the Blue Jays may not have quite the same clubhouse presence as at the end of last season — without Price, Navarro, Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and the much–loved veteran, Mark Buehrle.

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Still, this is a more poised and polished Blue Jays team on the field. Clearly, the returning players learned much about winning and losing from the abortive post–season run. The Jays do not get flustered by late–game adversity and have, in fact, been winning (or prolonging) games with clutch hits in the eighth and ninth innings. Gibbons is a vastly–underrated manager — if not a Billy Martin clone, strategically, then every bit the equivalent of Gaston at juggling egos and high–priced talent. Which may be a more arduous task. John is universally–liked throughout the game; a champion as a person. And, though I long–ago lost my rooting interest in Toronto teams, I’d be thrilled for Gibbons were he to become a baseball champion.

John knows that rival clubs will have much to say about Toronto’s title aspiration. In the American League, Texas provides a potential roadblock. World War III could erupt if the Jays and Rangers hook up in the playoffs again — the Bautista–Rougned Odor narrative likely to prevail. The defending–champion Royals, should they return to health, will also be in the conversation. As might the resurgent Cleveland Indians.

Over in the National League, it is San Francisco’s “turn” to win the World Series in an even–numbered year — having prevailed in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Coming into the weekend, the Giants had the best record in baseball (55–33 .625). Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs (though in a 2–8 slump heading into Saturday’s games) and the strong–armed Washington Nationals will provide sturdy opposition, as may the reigning N.L.–champion New York Mets and San Francisco’s closest rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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As the Blue Jays proved a year ago, the balance of power in either league can be influenced by the non–waiver trade deadline. There are bound to be some blockbuster additions at the end of this month, though Toronto doesn’t require the personnel jolt of last summer. Nor do I sense the Jays will have difficulty matching up with any opponent. The rotation is deep and reliable; the defense rock–solid, and the middle of the batting order (Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulowitzki) still the most–feared in the Majors.

As such, this is Toronto’s year. I’ve seen it before.

Remember where you read it first.

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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